As it begins its second season, Sanctuary is consciously in a time of transition. It spent most of its first season finding its feet, both as a web series converted to a full blown TV show and as a new project for several veterans of the Stargate way of doing things. The season 2 premiere, "End of Nights" (Oct. 9 and 16, 2009, on Syfy; click here for an image gallery), looks like a harbinger of the new, more confident Sanctuary, but there's still work to be done.
Magnus the Great
The best thing about the show is Amanda Tapping's Dr. Helen Magnus, and the show's creators (originator Damian Kindler, Stargate veteran Martin Wood, and Tapping herself) clearly know it: after starting her out shrouded in mystery, the show has been carefully exploring and expanding Magnus's character and long-lived backstory while making sure not to show too much too quickly. Key turning points in this development of Magnus were the seventh episode of season 1, "The Five," which introduced Magnus's participation in a group of 19th century self-enhancers; and the ninth episode, "Requiem," which found Magnus and her protégé, Will (the still not-quite-totally-bland Robin Dunne), trapped in a submarine, and Magnus infected with a violence-inducing parasite. From then on the crises facing the Sanctuary, which houses and protects "Abnormal" people and creatures, more closely related to Magnus's own long journey.
In "End of Nights" Magnus faces a different kind of trauma, in a sense more conventional: her daughter, Ashley (Emilie Ullerup), has been kidnapped by the Sanctuary's Abnormal-fearing nemesis organization, the Cabal, and is being turned into a mind-controlled super-soldier to be used against the Sanctuary and Abnormals. The through-line of this story is Magnus's emotion-driven determination stop the Cabal and rescue Ashley, and her increasing desperation as the Sanctuary is thrown onto the defensive when the Cabal starts infiltrating all the Sanctuary's locations worldwide, until at last she's forced to defend the home base against her own super-villain daughter.
The story (written by Kindler and beautifully directed by Wood) is well-constructed and builds effectively from a mystery (the Cabal seems peculiarly interested in some test subjects from a number of years ago) into an all-out battle. There are elements of this progression that don't work as well as they should: for a show shot mostly on green screen with CGI backgrounds dropped in, Sanctuary feels strangely studio-bound, delivering only in a limited way a sense of place at, for example, the British Sanctuary, where they spend a considerable amount of time. In the past the show has had rooftop battles and visits to far-flung ancient ruins, but some of this episode feels confined, like it was shot conventionally in a warehouse somewhere.
Even more oddly, the Abnormals themselves, apart from those who are members of the team -- including tech guy Henry (Ryan Robbins), the teleporting ex-serial killer John Druitt (the invaluable Christopher Heyerdahl), Bigfoot (Heyerdahl again), and recurring snarkmeister-vampire Nikola Tesla (Jonathon Young) -- and a monster used against the Cabal, are out of sight and out of mind. The Sanctuary castle is designed to house and protect Abnormals both friendly and dangerous, but we see nothing of them, and the script ignores them as well apart from a line about having moved them all to a safe location off site. Huh? The Sanctuary is supposed to be the safe and secure location. The Cabal is shutting down all the Sanctuary installations around the world, and they have plenty of inside info. So where is there a secret extra Sanctuary that's safe?
The real problem here is that early episodes showed the Abnormals being exhibited like zoo animals, which tainted Magnus's work with unfortunate implications. Throughout season 1 the Abnormals were seen less and less, apart from he Abnormal of the week if there was one; and here in the season 2 premiere they're reduced to throwaway dialog. The whole concept of how Magnus and the Sanctuary deal with the Abnormals needs to be rethought.
Apart from Tapping and Ullerup, who gets some great fight scenes and a couple of poignant moments, the season 2 premiere also does not do well by the very talented series regulars. Druitt is a great character (and Heyerdahl is always amazing), but action sequences tend to reduce Druitt to his teleporting ability -- though there's a good scene late in "End of Nights" where he can't teleport and has to fight with his hands. Robbins spends half the episode staring dolefully at Bigfoot (who is ill and refuses to take human medicine) and the rest being a keyboard monkey -- again, this character has great potential and Robbins (who was the most interesting of the Genii leaders on Stargate Atlantis) is a very intriguing actor, so I'm hoping for more from him this year. Will Zimmerman, whose special ability is that he notices things (seriously, he's a particularly talented police profiler), is often reduced to bystander status. (Hilariously, the Cabal villainness tells her minions to kill Magnus, Druitt, and Tesla -- "and Zimmerman, if he gets in the way.")
The New Girl
Perhaps most mistreated of all is Tesla: a fascinating character fascinatingly played, in this story he's reduced to the Scotty/Rodney McKay role of being required to conjure a stroke-of-genius world-saving invention within the tiny amount of time required by the plot, with Magnus shouting at him that she needs it yesterday. This construct is artificial tension, folks, because a story like this isn't going to end with Tesla saying, "Sorry, nothing came to me"; so the whole thing is a disservice both to the plot and to the character.
Part of the task of the premiere is to introduce the newest recruit, freelancer Kate Freelander (Agam Darshi), a smart-mouthed, unpredictable, goes-her-own-way sort. (This was the part of the original conception for Ashley, but Ullerup didn't take her very far in that direction.) I cringe whenever I see a new character being introduced that's full of sassy comments and rebellious attitudes (I'm looking at you, Warehouse 13), because this is such a trope and something tired shows do to spice things up. In Sanctuary, the growling sass-mouth feels out of place. Darshi's performance is good, at least, so we'll just have to see if the writers are capable of integrating her into the cast.
Because of the talents involved, the wide-open concept, and the way it's created, Sanctuary has huge potential. The season 2 premiere is good to great, with a fantastic performance from Tapping and a real escalation of the Cabal threat. Let's hope that the show continues to develop and evolves, like its characters, into the show it's capable of becoming.